Gates of Repentance replacement advances Reform trends

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Reform Judaism’s rabbinic association unveiled its new High Holy Days prayerbook — one that continues the movement’s trend toward inclusive liturgy — at the group’s 126th annual convention last week.

“Mishkan HaNefesh,” the movement’s first machzor since 1978, was a major focus of the Central Conference of American Rabbis conference that concluded March 18 in Philadelphia.

The new machzor features the voices of female writers and language more reflective of the LGBT experience. But it also signals a return to gendered language for God in Reform liturgy, including a version of the iconic High Holy Days prayer Avinu Malkeinu that refers to God as both “Loving Father” and “Compassionate Mother.”

It replaces a line from the movement’s earlier prayerbook, “Gates of Repentance,” that referred to the joy of a bride and groom with “rejoicing with couples under the chuppah [wedding canopy].”  It also adds a third, non-gendered option to the way worshippers are called to the Torah, offering “mibeit,” Hebrew for “from the house of,” in addition to the traditional “son of” or “daughter of.”

 The book’s title, roughly translated as “sanctuary of the soul,” also refers to the portable sanctuary, or mishkan, that the ancient Israelites carried with them during their desert wanderings.

The first edition of 250,000 copies will be available in June. As of last week, 127,000 copies had been preordered by approximately 180 congregations.

“It is spiritual, it weaves the voices of both men and women and contemporary language along with the traditional prayers,” said Rabbi Denise Eger, the CCAR’s newly installed president. “But it also gives voice and framework to our anxieties and our deep questions about God and meaning and the world in language that the contemporary ear and heart and mind understand.”

A page from the new Reform High Holy Days prayerbook

Published by the CCAR Press, “Mishkan HaNefesh” has been in the works since the 2007 publication of a new Reform prayerbook, “Mishkan T’filah,” for which the new machzor is intended as a companion. Both books share the same distinctive two-page layout in which the Hebrew prayers, with their transliteration and translation, are featured on the right side, while the left contains alternative readings drawn from an array of sources. The machzor occasionally departs from this display.

Both books feature the idea of integrated theology, according to Rabbi Edwin Goldberg of Temple Sholom in Chicago, the coordinating editor of “Mishkan HaNefesh.”

“Integrated theology simply means that there’s many views of God that are normative in Judaism,” he said. “Some are better known than others. Everything from very theistic, God controls everything, to human adequacy, which doesn’t mean there’s no God, but just that so much is up to us. And I think there’s room for a spectrum in a prayerbook worship experience.”

This plurality of theologies and perspectives is achieved by including everything from contemporary Israeli poetry to texts for private study and reflection to newly composed prayers that the editors hope will speak to today’s Reform worshippers.

Rabbi Hara Person, the publisher of CCAR Press and executive editor of the new machzor, called one newly composed prayer a “prayer of protest.” Offered as an alternative to Unetaneh Tokef — to many, a perennially troubling prayer with its famous musing about who shall live and die, by fire or by water — the new prayer alternates between frank expressions of doubt and lines from the traditional liturgy.

It reads: “I speak these words, but I don’t believe them
 / The Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. / Clearly there’s no scientific foundation
 / You know how we are formed;
 / You remember that we are dust.”

The previous Reform machzor, “Gates of Repentance,” was published in 1978. By the time the process of creating the new prayerbook began in 2008, Person said, there was a feeling that the older text was no longer relevant.

“Today we live with different fears and anxieties than we lived with in the ’70s and ’80s,” she said. “There are references in ‘Gates of Repentance’ to the post-Vietnam era and the fears of nuclear holocaust. Our fears are different.”

The new machzor is a high-stakes endeavor for the movement. Not only is the editorial and publishing process for such works long and costly, but the CCAR relies on prayerbooks for about 40 percent of its income, according to Person. And since the book is in use only during the handful of days when synagogue attendance is at its peak, it’s a chance for the movement to make a case for its relevance to large numbers of people.

“This is our shot to open their eyes to Reform Judaism,” Goldberg said.

David A.M. Wilensky
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
J. The Jewish News of Northern California Staff Headshots.
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is director of news product at J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @davidamwilensky